When it comes to big-game fishing, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good

Photos by Austin Coit

Rough conditions — like epic hangovers — can impact the effectiveness of captains and crew.

Rough conditions — like epic hangovers — can impact the effectiveness of captains and crew.

Most of us have heard trolling described as “hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of chaos.” This definition holds especially true when discussing big-game fishing for marlin. It’s unquestionably a low-percentage game in which one must often tolerate long periods of inactivity in the hopes of experiencing the adrenaline rush of a big fish suddenly appearing in your spread. It’s what offshore junkies live for and what keeps us coming back again and again.

I have a psychologist buddy who likens those of us so afflicted to laboratory rats. He points out that rats can be trained to push a tiny lever repeatedly with their forepaws. After maybe a hundred pushes, a morsel of food drops out of a chute. This reward encourages the rat to push that lever again and again in the hopes of another reward.

I’m not sure I like being compared to a lab rat, but I must admit that the behavior sounds a little like me. The low catch-per-unit-of-effort rate (the scientific measurement of fishing success) in big-game fishing doesn’t dissuade most of us. And when that big fish does materialize, it makes it all worthwhile. Everything gets boiled down to that one, brief moment: the bite, the best part of fishing.

It all boils down to that one moment: a good bite, a big fish.

It all boils down to that one moment: a good bite, a big fish.

No matter how many times you experience it, you never seem to be quite ready for it when it occurs. Professional crews and anglers of great experience stay calm and simply go to work. The methodical process of hooking and catching the fish becomes rote, and the calmer and more focused you can stay, the higher your chances of success.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. For one thing, fish don’t always attack when you’re ready. They can show up at decidedly inopportune times — quite an inconvenience, really. Such a scenario occurred many years ago on a friend’s boat while trolling off Bimini in the Bahamas. His crew had gotten a late start after a late night at the now-defunct Compleat Angler bar, and they headed offshore with powerful hangovers.

Such an impairment definitely reduces your angling effectiveness, but they were determined to catch a blue marlin. As the captain steered the boat off Bimini’s western shore, my buddy worked the cockpit, putting out baits. Back then, many skippers used rigged bonefish for bait (a practice now frowned upon), and my buddy’s crew had a fat bone rigged and ready.

The crew were discussing the previous evening’s festivities and the ferocity of their hangovers, and no one had an eye on the spread. My buddy was the sole occupant of the cockpit, and as he attempted repeatedly to deploy the bonefish, it kept snapping out of his hand as he tried to put the line in the outrigger clip. He told the captain that the bait had obviously been improperly rigged, as he couldn’t get it set right, sparking a spirited discussion about who knew more about bait rigging.

After the third or fourth attempt, my friend looked back at the bait to see what was going on, and he saw a huge dorsal fin cutting back and forth behind the bonefish. “Marlin!” he shouted, setting off a scramble as those on the flybridge jumped to the cockpit sole. Someone grabbed the rod and managed to drop the bait back to the fish amid the bedlam, and hook it. The fish had repeatedly tried to eat the bait, undetected, and persisted long enough for someone finally to realize what was happening. They caught and released that fish and estimated it weighed close to 800 pounds.

The unexpected can catch even competent crew off guard.

The unexpected can catch even competent crew off guard.

Cockpit chaos takes many forms and doesn’t always involve marlin. One winter afternoon a few years back, I found myself offshore in my home waters off Islamorada, Florida, fishing live baits for sailfish. The ocean had been greasy-calm all day, with little current — typically not the best sailfish conditions, and we hadn’t caught much. We hadn’t seen a single sailfish all day. As late afternoon approached, we agreed to admit defeat, call it a day and head home.

My wife, Poppy, and one of her friends manned the cockpit. When we’re done for the day we usually dump our remaining live bait overboard in the hope of eliciting a strike — a desperation move to be sure, but sometimes it pays off. The ladies tossed scoops of live ballyhoo and pilchards overboard, and from the flybridge I watched the baits streak across the surface, seeking shelter.

Dark shapes appeared behind the boat, two dozen or more, as a huge pack of sailfish rose to chase the terrified baits. “Sailfish, get ready!” I screamed to the crew below, a totally unnecessary announcement, as they, too, were mesmerized by the melee off our transom. The remaining baits made a beeline back to our boat, the only shelter around, with the sails in hot pursuit.

The aftermath of a struggle with a big fish: It feels so good when you stop.

The aftermath of a struggle with a big fish: It feels so good when you stop.

We still had four live baits out, and the sailfish began streaking beneath the boat. It was like watching a movie. All four rods went off almost simultaneously, and we found ourselves hooked to a quad with only two anglers. Poppy and her friend grabbed two rods and left the other two in the holders, and in the ensuing pandemonium we managed to lose all four fish. The sailfish were gone as suddenly as they had appeared, and the three of us could only stare at one another and laugh as we all exclaimed, “What the hell just happened?”

Lastly, not all cockpit chaos involves fish, not real ones, anyway. A friend worked as a charter boat mate in Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, years ago. While trolling offshore one calm summer day he sat atop the bridge ladder watching the baits. The bite had been slow, and after a while the rhythmic hum of the diesels and the gentle rolling of the boat caused him to nod off.

He fell off the ladder into the cockpit and landed on his feet with a loud bang. Apparently the charter guests had dozed off, too, but now everyone sat bolt upright, wondering what had just happened. Being a quick thinker and not wanting anyone to know he had fallen asleep, my friend grabbed the nearest rod, held it high above his head and screamed, “White marlin, right rigger!”

The astonished crew leapt to their feet and stared back into the wake, looking for the mythical fish. The captain dutifully began steering the boat in a figure-eight, trying to get another bite. To this day those folks likely think of that “fish” as one that got away.

Moments such as these define our sport and make what we do worth the wait.

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